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Barber: A's find their long-ball identity in 5-4 win against Rangers

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OAKLAND — The A’s returned to the world on Saturday evening. The shape-shifters who had assumed their identities for three games were gone, and the real, flesh-and-blood Athletics were back in action at the Oakland Coliseum.

Mark Canha signaled their return in the second inning when he met an Adrian Sampson slider just below his knees and drove it over the fence in left field. It was just one run. A solo homer, as we say. But it was more than a 1-0 lead over the visiting Texas Rangers. It was reaffirmation of who the A’s are.

“We hit homers,” manager Bob Melvin said after his team’s 5-4 win. “It’s what we do.”

It is. These A’s are sluggers. They are long-ball hitters. They are joggers around the bases, the worthy successors to Reggie and Bando, to the Bash Brothers and the Moneyball crushers.

The A’s are now 35-13 this season when hitting multiple homers. They are 21-11 when they hit a single home run, and a hopeless 2-23 when failing to clear the fences. OK, so every Major League Baseball team gives itself an advantage when it hits a home run. But for the 2019 A’s, going deep isn’t merely a good idea. It’s vital to winning.

That 2-23 mark in homer-less games? Compare it to the Giants, who are 14-22 this year when they stay in the yard. Not a great record, but the Giants have something around a 40% chance of winning in those situations. They are built to win some small-ball squeakers. The A’s are not.

Fortunately for Oakland manager Bob Melvin, his bats are rarely quiet for long. The A’s longest homer-less streak this season is three games. They’ve done it three times, most recently on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. They lost all three of those games, including two to the Rangers here.

“Anytime it’s like that, it’s almost like everyone’s in the dugout: ‘This is the at-bat it’s coming. No, this is the at-bat it’s gonna happen,’” right fielder Chad Pinder said. “Because one through nine (in the order), we’re capable of doing that.”

In this case, the at-bat led off the bottom of the second, when Canha made sure the drought did not reach four games. And his blast opened the barn door. Sampson left a 2-0 slider over the plate in the third inning, and Marcus Semien put it into the left-field seats for a 2-0 lead. Matt Chapman turned a not-so-sinking sinker into a two-run shot in the fifth inning. Then Ramon Laureano skied a pitch onto the stairs beyond the left-field wall in the sixth for a 5-0 lead that would prove absolutely necessary in a one-run win.

Laureano, who had a history of beef with Sampson, watched his drive with true admiration and had some words for the pitcher, who walked toward Laureano as he rounded the bases and had to be ordered back to the mound by first-base umpire Dan Iassogna. The A’s spilled out of their dugout, led by an angry Canha, who had been plunked by Sampson two innings after he broke the scoreless tie.

Later, in the bottom of the eighth, Texas relief pitcher Rafael Montero hit Laureano on the upper arm. Benches and bullpens emptied onto the field and Montero was immediately ejected, though there were no fisticuffs.

It was a splendid interpretation of Fireworks Night at the Coliseum, and it all started with a home run. Of course it did.

“I guess that is part of our identity,” said Pinder, who saved the game in the top of the seventh when he threw out Texas’ Elvis Andrus at the plate. “We do hit homers, and that’s how we score a lot of our runs. When we do go through a little lull like that, you hope it comes quicker than later.”

The A’s have been good since the All-Star break, and they have scored some runs. But they haven’t truly been their seat-denting selves.

Last year, Oakland had five guys with 20 or more home runs. One of them, Jed Lowrie, was not re-signed in the offseason. Among the other four, only Matt Olson, the sweet-swinging lefty, has been on an A’s-like home run tear lately. Stephen Piscotty hasn’t played since June 29, when he sprained his knee while sliding into second base against the Angels. Meanwhile, Chapman, a splendid all-around player, had just one homer in 62 July at-bats as he entered Saturday’s game.

That must have made Chapman’s opposite-field muscle shot to right-center even more satisfying.

“It felt good to finally stay through a ball the other way,” he said. “I’ve been getting a little pull-happy, I think, and I was determined to use the whole field.”

And then there is Khris Davis. The reigning MLB home run champion, collector of 48 dingers in 2018, got off to a powerful start this season.

But he is in perhaps the greatest funk of his career. Davis is batting .133 in July, with an on-base percentage of .214 and a slugging percentage of .147. That’s very bad, but things are even worse over the past 14 days, when he has a slash line of .128/.160/.149. And over the past seven days, he’s at .043/.080/.043.

Those are numbers befitting a relief pitcher forced to bat because he ticked off the manager. Davis doesn’t have a home run in 28 games. Melvin gave him the day off Saturday. It’s hard to know exactly what’s going on with Davis, because he has more or less declared a press moratorium and retreated into a protective shell.

“He’s not the only guy struggling,” Melvin said before Saturday’s game. “And sometimes these things get contagious. We went on a nice run, and now we’ve slowed down a little bit, and now it’s up to us to pick it up. But I think it’s pretty much across the board offensively for us right now. We don’t go through too many of these periods, and just something we have to deal with and fight out of.”

They did.

Talking to reporters after the win, Canha talked about how home runs aren’t entirely controllable, how getting deep into counts and “not trying too hard” are more important than mighty swings for his team. Was that the approach Canha had taken in the second inning, then? He smiled, realizing he had failed to heed his own advice.

“Ironically, I put a slider out of the strike zone out of the ball park,” Canha said.

The A’s have 56 more games to put together sensible, patient at-bats. Saturday night, they needed to find their identity again. They needed some long balls.

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Skinny_Post.

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